Being the Beginning of Bencolin
I’m one to obsess a bit about my To Be Read stack – not just the three or four books that will be read next, but the order of the entire stack(s). I like to read a mix of Carr – some classics, some less appreciated books. Some Fell, some Merivale, some non-series or historical. When I first started, one of my big questions was in what order I should attack Carr’s work. I didn’t want to blow completely through the best of his stories – I wanted to mix things up. But with over 70 books in the backlog, how was I to identify a proper order? Sure, the classics, recommended, and duds are fairly easy to identify from reading various lists and blogs. But there is a large middle ground of less reviewed books that I had a hard time evaluating.
JJ from The Invisible Event offered some reasonable advise to me. To paraphrase – “Quit obsessing over the ranking and just read the books roughly in order.” This is actually some fairly good advice if you consider my core goals:
- Read through a mix of Carr’s work, spanning the classics, recommended, and the so-called middle ground.
- Read a mix of Merrivale, Fell, and non-series
- Preferably avoid the worst of it, at least until the end.
Carr’s chronology fits well into this pattern. He was a prolific writer in the 30’s and 40’s, producing a nearly even mix of Fell/Merrivale books while mixing in non-series works like Poison in Jest, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, and The Burning Court. During this time period, he is considered to have produced his finest work, along with a number of strong contenders, and a few claimed lesser works. His quality supposedly waned slightly in the 50’s, with his only real “bad” material coming in the 60’s.
Given this, JJ’s advice seemed sound. The only problem being that I had already worked my way through a respectable number of Carr’s books. Plus, what fun would it be to have such a predictable list? When I obtained a new book, such as my recent acquisition of The Eight of Swords, I wouldn’t get the enjoyment of agonizing over where to place it in the stack. Still, the idea of approaching Carr’s work chronologically had appeal.
Fortunately, I had an answer – Bencolin. Despite covering a decent swath of Carr’s library, I had yet to approach the early works featuring his first series detective. My natural tendency would been to have read Four False Weapons first (due to the interesting premise), but what if I approached these in order?
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of these early books. I knew that they were considered some of Carr’s darkest – a definite plus given my enjoyment of The Red Widow Murders and The Problem of the Green Capsule. I knew that the detective, Bencolin, was “satanic” (whatever that means) and not jovial like Fell and Merrivale. My real curiosity lay with the writing style – did Carr’s earliest work exhibit the brilliance of both puzzle and prose that I’d come to love? Time to find out.
So, that leads us to what you’re wondering if I’m ever going to get to – the actual review.
Unlike most of Carr’s later work, It Walks By Night takes place in Paris. The story begins with a famed athlete who has just been married. This presents a problem, since the bride’s ex-husband is a psychotic killer, who has broken out of prison with the vow to kill any man who comes near her. We don’t have to wait long to see this promise carried out. Within the first few chapters, the husband is found decapitated under seemingly impossible circumstances. With the police on watch for a potential attack, the victim walks into an empty room, shuts the door, and is found dead minutes later. All entrances to the room were constantly under watch, and Carr breaks the fourth wall to rule out potential solutions like trapdoors or rappelling several stories to the street below.
Plus… we get a map! My edition features it on the first page, noting “The plan is very important, please consult”. And boy is it. I’m always a fan of maps because they give you a better mental image of the setting for the story. Plus, there is the tantalizing hope that you’re somehow going to be able to figure out the murder using the map. Of course, that rarely pans out… However, in this case, the map actually has some really key elements that make perfect sense when it comes to the solution.
As for the story – this is some dark stuff. Unlike later works, which never dwell too much on the horror of the murder, here Carr delights in it.
“But the man had no head. Instead there was a bloody neck stump propped against the floor.”
Although Carr presents a strong impossible crime early in the story, it is more the horror of the crime, rather than the impossibility, that holds focus for the rest of the book. That, and a mystery of hidden identity. You see, the psycho killer is a master of disguise. We know that he had plastic surgery after escaping prison and promised to insert himself close to the groom. This raises the (somewhat preposterous) possibility that any character could really be the killer in disguise. I find disguise to be a bit unfair in novels – the reader doesn’t strongly grasp what the different characters look like, and so they have no real way of understanding whether two characters look similar enough for an impersonation.
Bencolin is thoroughly enjoyable, and an interesting contrast to Carr’s core series detectives. I personally see a lot of difference in Fell and Merrivale, but I can somewhat accept the argument of those who would describe them as basically interchangeable. Both are blustery enigmas who command each scene they occupy, even if they are just sitting and thinking. Both exude an air of comedy just in their very being. Bencolin, in contrast, is more of a sly gentleman. He fits into each scene, occupying it with the other characters, rather than standing out as omniscient detective. At least, that’s the impression I get from this first book.
As I had suspected, Carr’s writing style is slightly different in It Walks By Night. I found the book to be extremely easy to read, whereas with his later work, I find myself rescanning a paragraph every so often to feel like I’ve fully consumed it. He still peppers his writing with those small details that go well beyond what is necessary to move the plot along – details that help me feel truly immersed in the time and place.
So, how does it all pan out? Well, I wouldn’t say It Walks By Night is a classic, but I would definitely recommend it to a fan of Carr. Most of this is based on the strength of the ending – the solution to the possibility. Of course, I can’t say much without spoilers, but this is a twist that really left me thinking after I put down the book. My immediate reaction was “oh, that’s all?”, but then as the minutes passed, I started to enjoy the solution more and more. I’m inclined to think this may end up being one of my favorite twists when all is said and done.
On to a bit of spoilers – no, I’m not going to explain how it was done, but I will discuss some plot points that could ruin things if you haven’t read the story yet.
My favorite part about the ending is that the impossibility wasn’t actually intended – it was just an side effect of creating an air tight alibi. I love how Bencolin makes the comment that the impossible situation was a mistake, and the killer retorts with a comment about alibis.
As to the map… Oh, man, I had to slap myself upon looking at it after reading the solution. Everything is there for you to figure it out. This may be one of Carr’s most fairly clued books of all – aside from my complaints about disguise.